Students offer answers for school violence, vandalism

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A Chicago youth gang leader found his car riddled with bullet holes one morning. He was virtually sure that members of a rival gang had done it and vowed to even the score later that day.

But a group of students at Harrison High School, which he and the other gang leader attended, got wind of the rumor and summoned both leaders to come in to talk things over. The result was a discovery that the blame was misplaced. A potentially explosive situation was abruptly cooled.

For years educators have been searching for answers to school violence and vandalism. These persistent problems each year take a toll of thousands of student and teacher injuries and result in more than $200 million in property damage.

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Nationwide, school districts have tried everything from sophisticated hardware to stepped-up security patrols with limited success.

One of the newest, simplest, and so far most successful approaches involves students themselves in the solution. The idea is to make them feel that their school belongs to them and that they have an important stake and responsibility in keeping it trouble free.

This student involvement comes in several ways:

* In some schools, students have a voice in drafting student-conduct codes. The theory is that in helping set the rules -- often more conservative than when adults draw them up -- students are less likely to rebel against them. The National Institute of Education (NIE) report to Congress last year on "safe schools" concluded that schools with good leadership and rules that are firmly, fairly, and consistently administered are apt to have the least trouble with vandalism and violence.

* Another approach, one used at Chicago's Harrison High School and Illionis, is known as districts in Michigan and Illinois, is known as peer counseling. Influential student leaders are recruited on grounds of being needed to help their fellow students.They meet for an hour each day in small groups, with an eye to improving the school's climate and cutting back delinquency. They discuss their own attitudes and values and try to head off any trouble they hear of in advance.

"A lot of violence happens because of misunderstanding and rumor, and there's always a buildup to it -- it doesn't just happen," explains Don Jones, director of the federally funded Peer Culture Development Project based in Chicago. "We don't always get the kids to love each other, but we try to at least keep them from killing each other."

* Another student-counseling variation involves training student leaders in skills such as decisionmaking, communications, negotiation, and crisis intervention. It is called the "Open Road" project and now is in effect in 17 California schools. Last fall, it was launched as an experiment in 10 New York City high schools.

Under "Open Road," student leaders talk together and with other students about everything from how to cope with vandalism to what part they would like to play in choosing the curriculum. If a far-fetched rumore begins to make the rounds, student leaders can be briefed on the facts and dispatched to classrooms to set the record straight.

Dr. David Reiss first tried the idea several years ago when he was principal of a Duarte, Calif., school where, he says, the fear of campus violence was getting in the way of education. Now an associate professor at California State University and a consultant to the Open Road program, he credits the experiment with leading to much more education and less vandalism at Duarte. Students quickly developed the attitude, he says, that "nobody's going to mess around with my school."

* Many schools focus heavily on vandalism education as a preventive measure. Students are encouraged to think about how much destructive actions cost and who pays for them. In Wauwatosa, Wis., junior and senior high school students have had the job of teaching such facts to elmentary school students for the last seven years. Several school principals in Colorado Springs, Colo., credit such an education campaign with cutting vandalism cost in half.

One variation being tried in Portland, Ore., stresses the development of pride in the school and dangles a financial reward before students who devise the best vandalism prevention plans. Themost ambitious response, according to Roger Gray, a consultant for the Portland Association of Teachers, was developed by the Columbia Whitaker Middle School. After studying the results of a student questionnarie it distributed, the school set out on a campaign of skits, posters , assemblies, and slide shows aimed at raising its image with students. Students indicated awareness of the vandalism problem and attributed it to a desire for "kicks," anger at the school, and a lack of pride.

"It's definitely an attitude problem we're dealing with," Mr. Gray insists. "I don't think anybody driving by a school, whether it's a parent, a taxpayer, or a student, looks on that school as his. It's seen as an institution which nobody wants to own or take responsibility for."

* A few school districts involved students in a more traditional approach to the vandalism problem. In Prince Georges County, Md., for instance, student volunteers serve as additional eyes and ears for campus security forces by patrolling halls and parking lots and reporting anything unusual.

* Students may also play more of a role in the future. In Michigan, where a governor's task force recently completed a study on vandalism in the schools, one subcommittee suggested that a group of peer courts be set up to handle cases.

"I really think there needs to be some kind of student organizations or ombudsman so that when a student is harassed or gets a shakedown on the way home there are fellow students he can talk to," comments Robert H. Carrie, a Chicopee , Mass., principal who did his doctoral dissertation on peer group violence as a factor in school dropouts. "Students have most faith in each other, and they aren't going to talk to police or administrators about it."

"Student involvement can really turn a school around," agrees Maria Martinolich, an associate of the National Institute of Education. "But a lot we found in our study depends on the principal. If he supports the idea of involving teachers and students in decisionmaking and he doesn't view it as a threat, it can be very effective."

No one expects schools to solve the problem alone. The NIE study found a strong correlation between crime and unemployment in a community and trouble in its schools. But school officials also realize they cannot get away with pointing the finger of blame elsewhere and shrugging off responsibility.

One major new tool available to school systems to fight violence and vandalism is the National School Resource Network in Washington. Funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the network maintains a toll-free number (1-800-638-8090) and provides free technical-assistance bulletins on remedies that work. It sponsors free training workshops around the country on subjects such as how to invlve students in developing disciplinary guidelines.

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